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Cristiano Ronaldo at 35: Analyzing the Portuguese football icon's positional transformation over the years

ANALYST
Feature
Modified 05 Feb 2020, 20:23 IST

Cristiano Ronaldo at the 2018 World Cup in Russia
Cristiano Ronaldo at the 2018 World Cup in Russia

Cristiano Ronaldo is more than just a footballer. He's a global icon. The Portuguese forward's influence can be felt in so many spheres and he has been the face of football for well over a decade. From Sporting Lisbon to Manchester United to Real Madrid to Juventus, Ronaldo's monumental rise to stardom has seen him established as a demi-god of the sport. Winning the Ballon D'Or five times, Ronaldo has a mind-boggling 623 goals in 830 appearances at the club level. Apart from this, he is currently on 99 goals for his national side as well.

Football has arguably never seen a player as mercurial, committed and motivated as Ronaldo. His ambition to be the best, no matter what, has seen him defy the odds time and again. Ronaldo's gradual change from a flamboyant winger to now a ruthless poacher has been for the world to see.

On the occasion of the legendary footballer's 35th birthday, here is an analysis of CR7's development in terms of positional transitions over the years.


The initial years as a winger

Ronaldo's years as a winger came for Sporting CP, Manchester United and a part of his time at Real Madrid. In this period, the Portuguese forward was a flamboyant winger, with loads tricks and skills up his sleeve. His goal output took off only in his final season for Manchester United when he was played as a winger but slightly closer to the goal as he had been in previous seasons. In the 08/09 season, Ronaldo finished with 26 goals and 12 assists in 53 appearances after a season which saw a phenomenal 42 goals in 49 games. His clinical finishing was slowly emerging into a more consistent trend. This is what encouraged Real Madrid to spend what was then a world-record fee on him.

Credit: Statsbomb.com
Credit: Statsbomb.com

As the above graphic from Ronaldo's 08/09 season indicates, he was more of a winger at the time than the forward he is now. He has a high passing accuracy and was a heavy dribbler. Despite playing in a more reserved role than he does now, Ronaldo also had a high shot output per game and averaged around 0.48 non-penalty goals per game. These are world-class stats for a winger and ironically, they are from the time before Ronaldo entered his actual 'prime'.


Evolution to an inside forward

If one were to think Ronaldo had reached his peak after the 08/09 season, they would have been gravely mistaken. After his move to Real Madrid, Cristiano's output exploded. In 438 appearances for Los Blancos, Ronaldo scored an incredible 450 goals and also provided 131 assists. These stats are virtually unmatched in the world of football except by his close rival Lionel Messi. It is no coincidence that Ronaldo's exponential burst came after he was moved to the role of an inside forward. Coincidentally, Ronaldo was also handed the number nine jersey when he first joined Madrid.


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Ronaldo's stat chart for the 2009/10 season. Credit:Statsbomb.com
Ronaldo
Ronaldo's stat chart for the 2010/11 season. Credit:Statsbomb.com
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The above radars are from the mercurial forward's first two seasons at Real Madrid i.e 2009-2010 and 2010-2011. We can observe that the number of non-penalty goals he averages every game has shot up monumentally.

He still remained a heavy dribbler due to starting in a wide position on the left-hand side. Importantly, the success rate of his dribbles also increased, showing that he tried to take on opponents more often. Ronaldo also became more involved in Real Madrid's overall play. His numbers in terms of assists, key passes and through-balls per 90 minutes reflect this.

Credit:Statsbomb.com
Credit:Statsbomb.com
Credit:Statsbomb.com
Credit:Statsbomb.com

Ronaldo was signed by Florentino Perez to usher an era of dominance for Madrid. He was to be the focal point of an already talented side. Ronaldo responded to such immense responsibility by lifting his game to a new level. 


Transition to a forward

As much as he is a machine physically, Ronaldo's gradual ageing saw him transition from that speedy winger with bags of flair to an out-and-out forward. Right after the 2013/14 season, Ronaldo's presence on the wing diminished. The latter years of his Madrid career saw him playing in a position that can only be described as a fusion of an inside-forward, second striker and number nine.

He did start on the left-wing but rarely hugged the touchline, instead of lurking around the penalty box. He did not confine himself to the penalty box either, showing enthusiasm to wander about. Such a positional change did not affect his output. For example. in the 2014/15 season, he scored an incredible 61 goals in all competitions. This was followed up by 51 goals in the following season.

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Ronaldo's 2014-15 stat-chart. Source: Understat
Ronaldo
Ronaldo's 2014/15 shot-map. Source: Understat

As the above graphics from 2014/15 indicates, Ronaldo's output in terms of goals and assists remained as phenomenal as ever. However, he contributed less to the buildup due to his new position. The number of shots taken from outside the box diminished but he experienced more high/probability chances inside the box.

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Ronaldo's 16/17 shot/map. Source: Understat

The above is from the 16/17 season which sees a further decrease in shots from outside the box but more chances inside the box. This marked Ronaldo's gradual transition into a deadly finisher inside the box.


Lethal Poacher

Age and a transfer to Juventus in Italy completed Ronaldo's journey from a winger to an inside forward to a complete forward to a poacher. Ronaldo finished as the top scorer in the Serie A in his debut season playing in such a role. He scored 28 goals in all competitions and at the time of writing has 22 in the current campaign.

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Ronaldo's 19/20 season with Juventus. Credit: Smarterscout
Ronaldo
Ronaldo's 19/20 stat-chart. Source: Understat

The above graphics are from the current season and show Ronaldo's position as a poacher. His goal output has taken a relative hit but he is more involved in linking up with his teammates and engaging in plays around the box. Maurizio Sarri's one-touch football has turned him into a useful creator as well.

Ronaldo's transition represents a player who is aware of his limits but still wants to be the best wherever he plays. Age and physical decline are a part of any player's career but they need not be the end. While the Portuguese star is turning 35, he is, by no means, physically deficient to any youngsters. Where his body can no longer perform, he relies on his footballing IQ. Getting into dangerous positions and clinical finishing are a matter of instinct and cannot be coached. And few players in the history of football have had a greater goalscoring instinct than Cristiano Ronaldo.


Published 05 Feb 2020, 20:23 IST
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